Stamp Retailing Cycle

Philately has gone through three main phases as far as non-auction acquisition of stamps is concerned. Beginning about 1880, stamp shops began to crop up in major cities. By 1935, the height of philatelic retailing was reached with Manhattan alone having over a hundred retail stamp shops.  Cities like Philadelphia boasted over twenty, and in larger cities the presence of stamp shops wasn’t limited to the center, more heavily trafficked part of town, but extended to the neighborhoods as well. With so many shops, a stamp Saturday was a real treat for collectors. They would go from store to store looking for what they needed and could often do a considerable amount of comparison shopping in an afternoon. By the mid-1950s, stamp shops began to close in many cities. By 1960, Philadelphia was down to six main shops, and by 1970, three. Increases in central location rents is often given as the reason for the decline in stamp shops in the post-WWII period. I’ve looked at retail rents in central locations in this period, and they didn’t rise enough to influence whether or not a stamp shop stayed open. The real reasons for the end of stamp shops were two: Increasing suburbanization in the 1950’s moved more and more of the philatelic demographic out of the center of town (where they mostly had previously worked and shopped). At the same time that stamp collectors were moving to suburbs, new and shiny stamp shows and weekend bourses were opening up in convenient locations. It was these shows that ended stamp shops, not increased rents or declining philatelic popularity.
For about thirty years, stamp shows ruled the philatelic retail market. There were weekend regional shows in most cities and several shows each week in many of the more major cities. Annual or semiannual large regional shows dominated the stamp selling scene. Dealers would save their best new inventory to display first at major shows, and a whole cadre of dealers did nothing more than travel from weekend show to weekend show around the country, like carneys of paper rather than rides. The American Philatelic Society furthered the trend by establishing a national exhibition competition where winners of the ten to twenty best regional shows would then compete for a national award. The exhibit competition brought the most serious collectors to the show who brought the most serious dealers. In 1960, for instance, Apfelbaum was one of the largest retailers in the country, yet we did no shows. In 1980, again as one of the largest retailers, over 70% of our retail business was done at the fifteen stamps shows that we traveled too. Gas prices rose in the 1980s, and stamp prices declined making shows harder for collectors to get to and more expensive and less profitable for dealers to participate in. Still, stamp shows would still be an active sales venue for stamps if it wasn’t for the internet.
Every business and activity has been changed by the online world. Researches and information that would have taken hours, good luck, and a major university library at your disposal can now be made in a matter of seconds (for the assertion about commercial rents between 1950-1960 in the first paragraph, a statistic that would have been daunting to find in the old days for someone, like myself, at a local library in Jenkintown, by Google I had it in four seconds here .012 seconds for them, nearly four seconds for me to find the right click). For retailers, the internet means all of your stock is available to all the world all the time (can’t get more “all’s” than that). For stamp buyers, comparison shopping is nearly unlimited (though unlimited choice is not always a good thing). This is the current phase of stamp retailing and one that is likely to define how stamps are sold for the rest of our lives.
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